Areas of Work

Women in Prison

Women in prison have different backgrounds, problems and needs from male prisoners. QUNO has worked on the rights of these women and their children since 2003 and participated in the drafting of the 2010 UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders, known as the Bangkok Rules, which supplement the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

Prior to the development of the Bangkok Rules, which provide international standards on the treatment of women offenders, QUNO worked with other Quaker bodies (the Quaker representatives to the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, Quaker Peace & Social Witness of Britain Yearly Meeting (QPSW) and the Quaker Council on European Affairs) to produce detailed research on the specific problems faced by women in prison and pre-trial detention. These include:

  • over-incarceration of women, particularly for minor offences carrying mandatory prison sentences;
  • adverse impact of imprisonment on the children of imprisoned mothers, whether they reside in prison with their mothers or if they are separated from them;
  • inappropriate accommodation and sanitary facilities;
  • lack of appropriate staffing;
  • lack of female prison staff or staff with appropriate knowledge and skills to work with women;
  • lack of education and work programmes;
  • high proportion of women prisoners with a history of mental, physical or sexual abuse;
  • disproportionate representation of indigenous women, foreign nationals and women from minority groups in women's prisons.

QUNO works with a range of other organisations in this area, including with the World Health Organisation Europe Office's Health in Prisons Project to develop a background paper and declaration on Women's Health in Prison (published jointly in 2009 by WHO Europe and UNODC), and through making submissions to relevant UN human rights bodies.

Recent Timeline Events

August 2014

A new Human Rights and Refugees Representative at QUNO Geneva

In February, Rachel Brett who has been Representative, Human Rights and Refugees (HRR) at QUNO Geneva since 1993 announced her plan to retire.  After an international selection process, Laurel Townhead has been appointed to this position from 18 August; we extend a warm welcome to Laurel. Laurel obtained her Master's degree in International Human Rights Law from the University of Essex in 2003. She has experience, among other issues, of work on women in prison, children of prisoners, conscientious objection to military service and support to asylum seekers. She was at QUNO Geneva as HRR Programme Assistant and Project Assistant in 2005-7 and comes to us now from her position as Policy & Campaigns Manager at the UK NGO Women in Prison that she has held since 2008. Laurel has been an attender of Peckham Quaker Meeting in London for several years.

Rachel will continue to work with us part-time as Adviser, HRR during a significant transition period. Her outstanding work has improved the lives of many, changed attitudes, built understanding and led to new international agreements. Rachel has worked on the needs of child soldiers, women prisoners, conscientious objectors to military service, stateless people, and children of parents sentenced to death.

Related Areas of Work

August 2014

QUNO raises the rights of prisoners and their families at the 27th session of the UN Human Rights Council

QUNO has raised the issue of the rights of the families of persons deprived of their liberty and of children of parents sentenced to death at the 27th Session of the UN Human Rights Council.  These issues have been raised by QUNO in the General Debate and in the Panel on the Human Rights of Persons Deprived of their Liberty. This Panel was the first time the Council has dedicated time to considering the full range of human rights violations experienced by people in detention and made reference to the impact on their families including their children. 

Laurel Townhead, Representative for Human Rights and Refugees, delivered three oral statements, on the topics of women in prisons, older prisoners and children of parents sentenced to death or executed. Video of the three statements are available below:

  • Statement on women in prison given at the Panel on Persons Deprived of their Liberty
    (statement begins at 01:24:00)
  • Statement on children of parents sentenced to death at the General Debate
    (statement begins at 00:07:00) 


  • Statement given at the Interactive Dialogue with Independent Expert on Older Persons.
    (statement begins at 01:48:11)


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Related Areas of Work